canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: David Solway

David Solway is the author of many books of poetry including the award-winning Modern Marriage; Bedrock; Chess Pieces; Saracen Island: The Poetry of Andreas Karavis, The Lover’s Progress: Poems after William Hogarth and Franklin’s Passage. Among his prose publications, Education Lost won the QSPELL Prize for Nonfiction and Random Walks was a finalist for Le Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal. A collection of literary/critical essays, Director’s Cut, will be released in the Fall of this year. Solway’s work has appeared in such journals as The Atlantic Monthly, Canadian Literature, Descant, Parnassus, Partisan Review, Saturday Night and The Sewanee Review. He was appointed writer-in-residence at Concordia University for 1999-2000 and is currently a contributing editor with Canadian Notes & Queries and an associate editor with Books in Canada.

Poetry by David Solway

The first four poems above are from The Properties of Things: The Poems of Bartholomew the Englishman, upcoming from Vehicule Press. 

Shane Neilson interviewed David Solway in Spring 2003.

Carmine Starnino has argued that you are perhaps Canada's most underappreciated poet. Any idea why this might be the case?

I suppose Carmine may be right--though I have good company here--but I can't say with confidence why this should be so. Part of the fault is certainly mine. Like Pound's Mauberley, I'm a poet "out of key with his time," striving perhaps a little ridiculously to "resuscitate a dead art"--or at least one that seemed to me rather comatose. I recall maybe 15 or 20 years ago sending a swatch of poems to The Malahat Review, which were instantly rejected. The accompanying note from Steve Scobie read in part: "while we find your poetry excellent in its kind, it is not our kind." Speaks volumes, no? 

Also, I must confess that I never actively attended to what poets sometimes call their "career." While many of my peers, colleagues and acquaintances were beavering away on the circuit, joining leagues and cenacles, making nice to prestigious editors and publishers and so on, I was lazily extended on a beach in Greece acquiring a tan. In the course of many years, I learned some Greek, began reading the Greek poets and made myself at home in another country while Canada sailed right by me. As well, I scarcely bothered to read the "right" poets. The work of my strict contemporaries, or most of them, left me cold. And when I'd go to my "national" sources for inspiration or succour, it wouldn't be to the Confederation poets or the backwoods ladies but to poets like Stephen Parmenius, arguably the first "Canadian" poet, who was part of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's expedition and who died in a shipwreck off Sable Island in 1583. His De Navigatione, in which he foretold the skyscraper of the future, promised me that "labouring will not deprive a man/Of time to make a living through his own/Abilities." Or anyway, if not a living, then a life. 

But it does seem as if I have been willfully unfashionable. Finally, it appears I have a native talent for offending people, but don't ask me why. When Greg Gatenby invited me to read at Harbourfront and even gave me pride of place--a magnanimous gesture on his part--I insisted on speaking to him exclusively in French, which he understood poorly or not at all. I guess I felt that our poets and entrepreneurs should be at ease in both founding languages. But it was pure mischief on my part, and needless to say I was never invited back.

Surely you’re winking here…it appears that you deliberately antagonize, and the results are usually hilarious and quite perceptive. So I will ask why. Why? Is this attitude a byproduct of your own work’s rigor?

For the most part, I don’t really set out to antagonize anyone. Believe me. But some years ago I made a pact with myself to try to say what I see with as much candour and forthrightness as I could muster, and damn the consequences. You might say that the motto I adopted was: fork out or fuck off, which I applied equally to myself as to anyone else. The problem is that I don’t have a tolerance organ in my psychical make-up for literary fast-food, for mediocrity, pretentiousness, sloppiness and self-aggrandizement. I practically choke on the indigestibility of it all. Naturally this means that I’m going to make enemies, especially in a milieu in which so many people seem to have decided that it’s better to appeal than to appall, to pander and accommodate than to earn the unenviable reputation of the professional sourpuss, so as not to scuttle one’s own "career" prospects. But this also means that I have to monitor my own tendencies and proclivities pretty rigorously since no one is exempt. I recognize my vulnerability. And Lord knows, I’ve suffered my embarrassments.

What is the place of mischief in Canadian letters?

Good question and hard to answer. Certainly, apart from a handful of Socratic gadflies humming about, there isn’t much of that commodity to go around. The mischief we find here is mainly inadvertent, an effect of what is the case rather than of the intent to rectify it.

It's clear that figures from classical literature and mythology occupy your verse. Does this partly explain your animus towards Anne Carson?

My animus toward Anne Carson has absolutely nothing to do with classical literature or mythology and everything to do with the indisputable fact that she is among the worst poets writing in the language today. Of course she shares that honour with many others but very few have achieved the degree of exposure she enjoys. That means her capacity for doing harm and wreaking havoc is almost infinite and I consider it my duty to try to prevent that--to whatever minimal extent so quixotic an endeavour may be possible. But I must admit that the Carsonoma seems terminal.

I guess I mean that so many lax readers coo with superficial gratification when they read P-O-E-T-R-Y –the high kind with Roman and Greek references in it. You’re obviously not as easily tickled by her classicism.

If her classicism, as you call it, were seamlessly integrated into her poetry, mediated by a gift for metaphor, memorable diction and an ear for the music of the language, I would be her greatest fan. But she is regrettably lacking in almost every poetic virtue and desideratum. She cannot consistently manage metaphor very well, her diction is flat and gormless, and the rorty-sounding pulse of the language is foreign to her ear. To put it bluntly, Anne Carson is the Mother Teresa of contemporary poetry, but the blame is not hers alone. As Christopher Hitchens says in his provocative send-up of the sainted Albanian, The Missionary Position, "In the gradual manufacture of an illusion, the conjuror is only the instrument of the audience." Anne Carson and Mother Teresa have a lot in common, aside from the fact they are both frauds, and this has to do with the vast mass of received opinion which, as Hitchens concludes, is "made no easier to shift by the fact that it is made up, quite literally, of illusion." My argument is not so much with the deceiver as with the deceived. Anne Carson is not only Mother Teresa, she is us, and that is what I’m taking exception to.

I'd like first to ask what spurred the creation of Sestina: The Garden. Was it the reading of Petrarch himself? I'd also like to know how long it took to compose it fully. How did you arrive at the clever end-words that allowed such deft manipulation?

I've long felt that if the poet wishes to cut his (or her) teeth, earn his credentials legitimately, ground his imagination in the soil of authenticity--lifelong preoccupations, by the way--then he or she should be able to handle any and every of the art's time-vetted forms. There is no other way of acquiring mastery, of being really serious about what one is doing. Whatever else poetry may be, and it is surely many things, it is also a discipline with a history. And it is this history which also provides for whatever viable future it may envision or propose for itself. Now the sestina was until recently one of the few ancestral forms I had never tried to domesticate--too challenging, perhaps. So for many years I went around with a bad conscience until it began to infect my dreams. At this point I understood I had to do something about it, anyway if I wanted a good night's sleep. The actual writing of this poem took about a month, never less than six hours per day every day. As for the end-rhymes you mention, my effort here was intended to introduce a sense of the recombinant, to break the rigid mold or template of the form while trying to remain true to its spirit. I might also mention that the sestina seemed to be the ideal form in which to negotiate a lament for its relative disappearance, despite or maybe because of the fact that several contemporary poets have savaged it so utterly. That includes Elizabeth Bishop. Ashbery's Popeye may have killed it off single-handedly. Of course, whether I've had better success remains moot.

Redeye Ghazal: Saskatchewan is a beautiful meditation on prairie landscape packed with felicitous metaphor, ie. "skies so low it seems the prairie's heaved and buckled/ and miles of flatland can't be told from cloud ravines." This poem smacks of distillation; the concentration of its lyrical mode suggests to me that it took many drafts. Do poems come quickly to you, or are they arduous in their creation?

It seems almost every poet in the country has tried his or her hand at the ghazal, possibly because it's so easy to bring off if you avoid everything that makes the ghazal what it is. In addition, it confers a kind of cheap, unearned exoticism on these poets, makes them seem adventurous, erudite, and, yes, strenuously multicultural. Look at Doug Barbour's absolutely dreadful "Breath Ghazals" as an example of what I'm getting at. As a result I struggled to evade the ghazal as if it were a mutating virus. However, last winter I found myself on the redeye bus between Saskatoon and Regina, staring out the window at a landscape I was entirely unprepared for and decided, for whatever reason, to try and describe it in, naturally, a form I was equally unprepared for. But I wanted to do it right, in the standard seven stanzas, the first a rhyming couplet (called the matla) and the following six carrying on the rhyme scheme in the second line of each couplet. Also, the last couplet (called the makta) should according to tradition incorporate the name or pen-name of the poet. If you look carefully, you'll note that the last line encodes my name, informally, phonetically and a little facetiously: "the day is heavy with the solar weight of barns." As for the pace of composition, time seems wholly elastic and not of the essence. Eight or ten hours whoosh by in a flash. Two months in retrospect feel like a coffee break. One senses time only as a species of jet lag. Objectively speaking, I worked on this one for a couple of weeks, starting on the bus, continuing in my hotel room in Regina, and completing it at last in my study at home a little under a month later.

On the Sonnet is an impish defense of the form. I find that when I indulge myself in sonnetry, I'm initially invigorated by its strictures, but eventually I get smothered by them. I then consciously defect to another form. Do you also find that sonnets, when you're moved to write them, come in batches, and eventually you exhaust the form? That sonnets become oppressive after awhile, their aftereffects requiring some time to clear?

Everything becomes oppressive after a while. The sonnet has no lien on misery or boredom. You're right to defect. That's why it's good to keep trying to juggle oranges and medicine balls no matter how often you drop them.

What oranges and medicine balls are you juggling at the moment, and what projects do you plan for the future?

Well, I’ve just completed a new book of poems based on John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to map and complete the Northwest Passage, entitled Franklin’s Passage, due out with McGill-Queen’s this Fall, as well as a litcrit polemic, Director’s Cut, which will appear at the same time with The Porcupine’s Quill. Apart from this, I’m precariously juggling three more projects simultaneously: a new book on education called Reading, Riting and Rhythmitic; a collection of poems conceived in the voice of a certain 13th century scholar Bartholomew the Englishman, called The Properties of Things, slated for Spring 2004 with Signal/Véhicule; and a novel, The Book of Angels, which I suspect will furnish my detractors with a grand opportunity for revenge.

Tell me more about the "Bartholomew the Englishman" project. The few poems I’ve seen from this upcoming book read to me as the translations of a scholar and naturopath from antiquity. What set you down this road?

Bartholomew the Englishman (or Bartolomaeus Anglicus) is, as I’ve mentioned, an obscure thirteenth century scholar whose only surviving work, De Proprietatibus Rerum—from which I have borrowed my title for this collection, The Properties of Things—was translated a century or so later by the equally mysterious John Trevisa. A pseudo-scientific description of the world, it was intended as a kind of thesaurus or compendium for itinerant preachers to base their sermons upon, and although its 1400 crabbed and labyrinthine pages were no doubt useful at the time, the book is now practically unreadable and certainly unnecessary. Still, here and there in this improbable textual desert I came across rare and beautiful plants which I culled and combined in part with occasional cuttings from other texts, such as Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiarum, and "medlied" (as Bartholomew might have said) with my own passions, concerns and language habits to diversify and ground the poems. I should say that these "borrowings" are relatively few in number and I used them mainly to kickstart the collection. Incidentally, the Internet is also an abundant source of information but it’s often unreliable; for example, the entry on "Bartholomew and Mythical Plants" identifies our scholar as a sixteenth century encyclopedist named Bartholomaeus de Glanville.

In any event, I took all kinds of liberties in trying to reconceive Bartholomew not as a theologian and peregrine cleric but as a poet preoccupied with the things a poet would be interested in: poetry itself, the nature of imagination, the annoyances and marvels of the natural and quotidian worlds, and the complexities of love—in this last instance displaying a skeptical wariness similar to that of George Gascoigne’s Dan Bartholomew, although by no means as prone to indulging in "dolorous discourses" as this guy is.

In the course of time, as I read and reread the various texts in my faulty and half-forgotten university Latin and rusty Middle English, Bartholomew assumed a discernible if elusive personality from the words themselves as they assembled in my mind and proceeded to arrange themselves in speech patterns that were neither mine nor Isidore’s nor the original Bartholomew’s but those of the other Bartholomew—the poet, not the preacher or scholar—whose language is a peculiar hybrid of Middle and Modern English, with the emphasis falling mainly on the latter to ensure comprehensibility. Eventually the poems began to sort themselves into an alphabetary in order to provide a kind of lexical map of the world which the pseudo-author wishes to domesticate, charting what are for him some of its salient points and features. I’m still working on getting my A to Z properly in line. X was a rather baffling problem which I only recently managed to solve: "Xyster," an ancient scraping instrument which the real Bartholomew would never have known about. So was Q but that worked out too: "Quiryn." Nor does he appear to have acquired Greek and one wonders what he would have made of the adaptation from Seferis for the O poem, "Oracle," which is not only partly in Greek but clearly anachronistic. Similarly, the meditation on Yahweh for the Y poem owes more to Philo, Maimonides and Jewish speculation than to a seventh century Spaniard and two little-known Englishmen of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Why I am doing this is another question and one I can’t easily answer. I must be straight here and not try to pretend that I have concocted some grand aprioristic scheme largely intended to generate a bordereau of eccentric poems that might go over reasonably well at a symposium of slightly sloshed medievalists. As they say, it just happened, as I slowly made my way through the original texts—a growing sense of delight with what I was reading and the gradual surge of a desire to do something relatively serious with it in the only way I knew how.

I also wanted to construct a persona who would express a sense of himself as a poet living in an age inhospitable or indifferent to his craft and sodality. It’s not easy for the poet to persist in thinking in heraldic terms in an epoch that disparages pedigree. The discrepancy between what we might call ancestry and fashion is really my central theme and the book might be described as an effort to restore a genuine respect for the lineage in which as poets we are presumably involved.

And finally, the language of both the Latin original and of Trevisa’s translation: opulent, stanchless, inherently joyous, startling for all its difficulty, and gloriously carnal in its feel—a lot like Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil’s in Lord of the Rings who spoke what seemed "an ancient language whose words were mainly those of wonder and delight" but minus its cloying and repetitive quality—which I hoped to meld with my own parole to help me broaden and enrich whatever native resources I may be said to possess. It was the earthy and material quality of the language, its floral exuberance, rather than the encyclopedia of often abstract subjects, which I found compelling, almost irresistible.

My most pressing concern at present is to make sure that these Bartholomeans are ready for their publication, slated for Spring 2004. The race is on. Might be a bit disconcerting if that was their "best after" date.

You have indulged in the use of these heteronyms before—the most infamous of these being Andreas Karavis. How does the heteronym help your poetics?

Karavis. How to account for his apparition? On the personal level, I knew that, as happens at least once in the career of every poet, I had arrived at that curious writing juncture which may be described as both impasse and crossroads. My previous book, Chess Pieces, following on Bedrock and Modern Marriage, represented the end of what I call the "psychic decade," a period of eight to twelve years in which poets often tend to consolidate their verbal deportment and to begin impersonating themselves. Soon their poems start to read as if they had been stamped on the page. For my own part, the tone, stance, and voice, the fastidious poetics and the inclination to the cerebral which had marked my work throughout that period were now, I believed, exhausted and needed to be replaced by a new poetic language which engaged the world more directly—the kind of language which Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos wished "it might have been given me to write…of which I know not a single word, one used by the most wordless of things in speaking with me." As overpriced as it may sound, this was something like the purpose and effect that I hoped Karavian language would achieve for me. Put another way, Karavis represented a deliberate and systematic attempt on the part of someone who had lost confidence in his poetic identity to find himself again in translation.

I took my cue from the prayer of an Egyptian scribe, incised in stone around 1800 B.C.: "Would I had phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken." Obviously, such a "new" language could not be summoned into existence by mere fiat or artificially contrived and self-imposed. It had to flow both from a new set of postulates and a novel quality of experience. As Rilke implied in his "Archaic Torso of Apollo," if you want to change your style, "you must change your life." Wordsworth suggested something similar in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads: to arrive at a new style depends not merely on imitating the right kind of language but on being the right kind of person. And the way in which my unconscious presumably went about the task was to project a Greek poet by the name of Andreas Karavis, someone alien enough to allow me to reinvent myself and yet familiar enough to enable me to proceed with authenticity—to help me make the crossing, the "translation," from one poetic dialect to another while saving, as Wallace Stevens puts it in "To The One of Fictive Music," "a little to endow/Our feigning with the strange unlike." In the course of time Karavis became for me a robust and inescapable presence. Even the name now came to seem inevitable: two strong amphibrachs in "Andreas," suggesting andras (man, husband), and "Karavis," from karavi (sailing boat), also a near homonym of the greatest Greek poet of the modern era, Constantine Cavafy, with a pinch of seafaring poet Nikos Kavadias mixed in for good measure. I did take one small liberty with accentuation: the stress falls on the second syllable, Karávis, to chime with karávi, rather than on the third syllable, Karavís, as prescribed by the accentual norms of the language.

I also realized that the primary intent of my project could not be regarded as deflationary in the hoax tradition of Stewart’s and McAuley’s Ern Malley or Kent Johnson’s Hiroshima poet, Araki Yasusada. Quite the contrary. Karavis enacted the reinvention of a poetic self, closer in tone and mettle, perhaps, to W.D. Snodgrass’ S.S. Gardons, though minus the ulterior purpose of erecting a protective barrier—a "guard on"—to forestall the discovery of painful truths by intimates, as Snodgrass confided to Jo Shapcott during the Craiova poetry festival in Romania. Nor was Karavis, initially at any rate, an unbidden identity or some sort of metaphysical reflexivity as with each of Pessoa’s major heteronyms but a persona who was summoned and constructed before ultimately acquiring his liberty. Neither was he conceived as a "forgery" in the antiquarian tradition of Rowley and Ossian, prototypes of the ambition to inject a pseudo-past or native strain into a problematic national present or, as the case may be, of the wish to put one over on a credulous public. Finally, Karavis was not an attempt to invent a new genre (mixed or otherwise), like Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets, with its focus on the reclamation of gross bodily experience via the medium of sham Sumero-Akkadian clay tablets, or Pierre Louÿs’ The Songs of Bilitis, a fin-de-siècle prose-poem resuscitation of an ancient and scandalous passion. He was, rather, an extended trope or metaphor of the desire for transformation and his poems a metonym for the reconstructed self. This meant that Karavis had to be self-substantiating and I could not, at least initially, readily expose his origins as an imaginative projection, a disembodied wraith or something only made-up. A fiction cannot at first be recognized as fictitious if it is to do the practical work for which it was designed. For this reason, and for my own sake, I needed to make him as authentic and believable as possible since I was not interested in perpetuating a deception but in creating a style, and ultimately in recreating a self.

Was the Grecian Karavis persona an easier challenge than the Englishman's? You've spent time in Greece, the place and its literature is part of you. Investing effort in an obscure Englishman and getting good poetry out of it seems much more difficult than sticking closer to one's own experience.

In my experience nothing comes easy. Karavis goes back to the late sixties or early seventies when I was a young guy living in Crete. I had just been fired by the school where I was teaching ESL for uttering anti-junta sentiments in the cafés and tavernas. My wife was eight months pregnant, I had no money and no prospects, and I was being threatened with arrest by the Sfalia, or Security Police. I felt pretty alone, scared and vulnerable and invented Karavis as a psychological sidekick. At the time I was reading a novel by the Cretan writer Ioannis Kondylakis called Patouchas and stopped at the sentence which I translate as: "In his solitude his imagination personified and created a chimerical world in which he did not feel alone." That’s what I decided to do. Karavis was originally a 19th century corsair whose courage, derring-do and defiant ballads, canticles and satires gave me a borrowed and vicarious consolation. After we had escaped the country with the help of the Canadian Embassy, Karavis went into abeyance, only to re-emerge twenty five years later as a contemporary fisherman-poet, often dictating his poems to me in my dreams, most in English but a couple in Greek. I have no idea why this happened. Perhaps my psychological state in some way reproduced, mutatis mutandis, my earlier condition. And once he had reappeared I saw that Karavis represented the means by which I could effect a change in my habitual practise. But the revisions were real work and occupied me fully for two years or so.

Bartholomew was a different kettle of words. I came across a brief reference to him in W.T. Jones’ five-volume A History of Western Philosophy and was sufficiently intrigued to look him up in the McGill library, coming home with the De propietatibus rerum on extended loan. Then he simply took over and the Bartholomeans started coming pretty well out of nowhere—a first draft, albeit incomplete and unsatisfactory, sat on my table after four months of intensive effort. I mean intensive, so much so that I eventually collapsed with a serious illness that ultimately led to my going on medical leave and then taking early retirement. Following my recovery, a rather slow process of a year and a half, I began working on the manuscript again, and am still engaged on the project. Like I say, nothing has ever come easy to me, certainly not poetry, which exacts an exorbitant price. But if the poems are any good, exorbitance is a bargain.

Yet Bartholomew took much more preparatory work in a sense, seeing as how I had to plough through the Latin and the Middle English, no easy chore. But then, it took me years to acquire my market Greek, also requiring considerable study and application. So again, nothing was easy, but everything was great fun at the same time, despite the labour and the consequences. Half a dozen retsinas of one, a sixpack of Bass of the other. Cirrhosis of the liver in either case.

What are you reading at present?

Reading has become an almost untenable luxury for me over the last year or so—a damning admission to make. But daily life has grown so dauntingly orographic with its ever-steeper demands and all the projects I’m working on that every bit of text feels almost unscaleable. Must get back to it soon or I’m in big trouble. The books presently open on my library table are Spengler’s Decline of the West, John Metcalf’s An Aesthetic Underground, Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and George Back’s Arctic Artist. Needless to say, I feel like Achilles trying to overtake the turtle and scarcely closing the distance. The poetry books scattered about, within reading radius at any rate, are the two volume Pica Series Gwendolyn MacEwen—I’m giving her another chance—Maria Langoureli’s O Kyrios Me Tin Kabardina, A.D. Hope’s Collected Poems—I keep returning to his "Dunciad Minor" over and over again--, Paul Bélanger’s Fenêtres et ailleurs, and one of my perennial favourites, Zbigniew Herbert’s Selected. But unfortunately none of this represents consistent, purpose-built reading, at least not yet. As a result I’m starting to sense the language receding and beginning to feel like one of Swift’s citizens of Lagado having to lug a rucksack full of objects in lieu of words in order to communicate. I hope to rehabilitate myself over the summer.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.






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